If you were asked to describe your marriage, would you say it’s great, troubled, or fine?
Many people would answer “fine,” and that sounds, well, fine. But it indicates room for improvement, according to Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner of Bergenfield, a licensed couples therapist and professor at Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work.
On February 11, he’ll speak at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Aaron on “When a Marriage Is Fine, Is It Really? What Science and Torah Teach Us about Making a Good Marriage Great.” (See box.)
“The premise of this presentation is that when things are ‘fine’ you may actually be at higher risk of your relationship eroding, and there are things you can do to turn it around,” Rabbi Sytner said.
“The latest research has found that when couples report their relationship as ‘fine,’ it may indicate that they are simply coasting, while in fact the foundation to their relationship may be slowly eroding over time, causing the couple to grow apart. They may have begun tolerating a new reality where the norm is a lack of joy or romance, and the relationship may be operating in a robotic manner. When getting through the day and paying the bills is the goal, a couple may have entered an uninspiring pattern, which can lead them to feeling a sense of loneliness.”
Research on church communities, however, has found that congregational support and affiliation are associated with lower rates of divorce and higher rates of satisfaction in marriage.
Curious to see if this correlation also holds true for Orthodox couples, Rabbi Dr. Sytner spent five years studying marriage and divorce trends in three Orthodox subgroups: modern Orthodox, chasidic (ultra-Orthodox) and yeshivish (strict-leaning).
“While previous research on marriage in the Jewish community lumped all affiliations together, we have to take the time to understand each population of the Jewish community and how to respond to its unique challenges,” he said. “I looked at the least studied population, in my own backyard.”
He noted that the high cost of housing, tuition, food, and summer camp often adds stressors that put Orthodox couples into survival mode, and that this leaves little energy for nurturing their marriage.
“I was interested in finding out the trends of couples in crisis within each population and understanding who couples are turning to when their marriage is in trouble — rabbi, friend, family member, or therapist?”
Rabbi Synter had been a pulpit rabbi for 13 years — in Des Moines, Iowa, and Charleston, South Carolina — so he was aware of the assumption that Orthodox men have greater access to their rabbis than do their wives, because men generally spend more time in shul. If that were true, it could put women at a disadvantage; studies in church communities indicate that access to a pastor and ritual services make people of both genders more resilient.
To find out what really is going on, he partnered with the ARCC Institute of New City, a research institute that conducts behavioral health research among Orthodox Jews.
He discovered that an equal number of men and women responding to the survey — 72 percent — reported that they went to a rabbi when their marriage was in trouble, dispelling the myth that men in the Orthodox community were receiving more rabbinic support than women. He also found that marriages in all Orthodox communities face their share of challenges.
“Each community struggles with different issues that may lead them to divorce, and no community is immune, including the modern Orthodox,” he said. “This may be surprising to some, as the modern Orthodox population invests heavily in higher education. Yet being well-read and well-educated does not correlate with fewer risk factors for divorce.”
What exactly are those factors?
“A common misconception you’ll hear on the street is that people divorce over money, in-laws, children, and intimacy. I would argue that those are not the reasons for divorce but the topics around which couples’ relationships devolve. It’s really that they lack skills to constantly work on their relationship and build upon it.”
Here he is drawing on the work of Seattle-based clinical psychologists John and Julie Gottman, who have researched relationships for 40 years.
“After studying 3,000 couples over the years, Dr. Gottman is able to observe a couple having a conversation or a fight and in the first five minutes he can predict whether or not they will ultimately divorce, with 94 percent accuracy,” Rabbi Sytner said.
“So there are things couples are doing right or wrong in how they interact. It’s not about the children, money, or other stressors. It comes down to how you communicate and reinforce the fundamental friendship. If couples learn how to make a small course correction here or there, the entire game changes, and the relationship won’t erode over years of those types of fights.”
The Gottmans offer workshops based on their book, “Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.” Rabbi Sytner is trained to offer the workshops and will do so in Bergen County.
Orthodox couples are not immune to serious issues found in the greater population, he said. When he asked nearly 200 divorced Orthodox Jews what factors contributed to the breakup, he was shocked to find infidelity mentioned by almost a quarter of respondents, sexual addiction by 17 percent, physical abuse by 33 percent, and verbal abuse by 55 percent.
The latter is a subject with which he is well acquainted, because he lectures on behalf of Shalom Task Force, a national agency that helps Jewish individuals and families struggling with domestic abuse. “So many people suffer in silence and feel trapped,” he said. “We need to raise awareness that there is help and we must educate young men and women of dating age to look for red flags and respond to them in an appropriate way.”
Personality clashes were cited by 54 percent of divorced respondents, and 57 percent cited communication problems. “That speaks to the question of the shidduch process,” Rabbi Sytner said. He was referring to matchmaking culture in Orthodox circles. This typically involves parents, professional matchmakers, or volunteer matchmakers suggesting potential mates based on a “dating resume” provided by the single. This resume describes the person physically and philosophically and lists what he or she is looking for in a spouse.
“How are we preparing our children to understand themselves and then figure out the ideal personality to match them with?” Rabbi Synter asked. “In Orthodox communities the process often starts on paper where the personality doesn’t quite come through.
“We should be doing more work on a premarital level in high school and college, and I am a strong believer in premarital counseling for all engaged couples. If we can reverse-engineer a successful marriage, we can teach couples starting out to avoid certain mistakes and implement certain practices.”
Rabbi Sytner and his wife of nearly 21 years, Chana, have four children, who range in age from 12 to 19. He is pleased to see that local day schools are inviting speakers from organizations like Shalom Task Force and YU-Connects to talk to children about healthy relationships. This, he said, is especially important in Orthodox communities, where children are raised not speak to members of the opposite sex until they are dating. “Somehow it’s expected that when the time comes, they will know how to communicate effectively for a happy and healthy marriage,” he said. “Rather than hope, we can take concrete steps that can become an essential part of the educational process and give our children the best shot at having amazing marriages.”
At the Beth Aaron talk, meant for couples at any stage of life but especially those in the first 10 years of marriage, he will “demonstrate how a couple can talk to one another to make sure the message is being received and reduce what is often perceived as criticism. What I am sharing is time-tested research that has been scrutinized, analyzed, and tested repeatedly.”
In addition to his private practice focusing on couples, and his teaching at Wurzweiler, Rabbi Dr. Sytner is director of leadership and community development for Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future.
In keeping with the university’s mission of Torah Umadda (Torah and secular knowledge), he strives to fuse his scientific findings with a Torah perspective in his talks on marriage and divorce.
“I really enjoy drawing culturally from our collective story and using biblical examples like Adam and Eve and their mode of communication compared to, say, Abraham and Sarah,” he said. “I delve into verses that shed light on the communication in those relationships and help couples learn to identify their own communication styles.”
Rabbi Dr. Sytner said he is grateful to Beth Aaron’s Rabbi Larry Rothwachs for encouraging him to speak on this topic, calling Rabbi Rothwachs “a hero in advocacy for mental health and family wellness.”
Although research studies in the 1970s to the late 1990s showed Orthodox couples tended to avoid getting professional help due to shame and stigma, he found that today the majority readily seek help from therapists.
“The day of feeling too embarrassed to get help is over,” he said. “People are empowered to seek help and not suffer in silence.”
What: “When a Marriage Is Fine, Is It Really? What Science and Torah Teach Us about Making a Good Marriage Great”
Who: Rabbi Dr. Ari Sytner, a licensed couples therapist and professor at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work
When: Monday, February 11, 8 p.m.
Where: Congregation Beth Aaron, 950 Queen Anne Road, Teaneck